A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

by Dave Eggers

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

Dave Eggers was one of the founding editors of a now defunct magazine called Might. During its relatively short life, the magazine poked fun at everything. That same sense of humor can be found in Eggers’s memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). Despite the fact that Eggers was writing a story about his life, he was simultaneously making fun of the accepted form of memoir writing. Eggers leaves nothing untouched in his book, including the copyright page, which reads, “This is a work of fiction.” He goes on to explain, that, like anyone undertaking memoir, he could not possibly remember all the exact details of every act and conversation that he was involved in. Thus, in reading Eggers’s book, which is at times very sad, very disturbing, and very funny, readers are continually forced to ask themselves: Is this section true? Or is this the part that is fiction?

The sad parts of Eggers’s memoir are unmistakable. Eggers loses both his parents while he is in his early twenties. His parents die within weeks of one another and Eggers is left with a young brother to raise at a time when Eggers is not fully developed himself. The disturbing parts of his memoir involve friends and relatives who suffer mental depressions and threaten suicide. Others become ill and die. Some meet with accidents, such as falling several floors and surviving, but with handicaps. As for the funny parts, they run throughout the story as Eggers exposes his wacky inner thoughts, which are often laced with paranoia.

Though this is not a work of pure fiction, Eggers has been hailed by many critics as the twenty-first century’s version of J. D. Salinger, known around the world for his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Eggers is reminiscent of Salinger’s protagonist Holden Caulfield, a character that is often angry about everything and everyone in his world.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1482

Eggers is home from college as the story begins. He and his sister Beth are tending to their mother, who is in the last throes of her bout with cancer. They have promised not to take her back to the hospital. She has been sick for a long time. Eggers’s father has just recently died. Their mother quickly deteriorates after the death of her husband, and Beth and Eggers take her to the hospital, where she dies.

After the funeral, the siblings (Dave, Bill, Beth, and Toph) pack up and sell the house. Beth returns to law school. Bill returns to Southern California. Dave and Toph find a house not far from Beth in Berkeley and settle down.

Getting Toph registered in school is the first time Eggers feels the full load of parenting fall on his shoulders. He does not like having to explain that he is Toph’s brother and not his father and tends to make up stories when other parents ask him questions. Eggers also goes through transitions when he realizes how sloppily he lives, leaving dishes unwashed and food out for long periods of time and generally having a very disorganized and dirty home. It actually takes one of Toph’s friends, asking how they can live in such a mess, for Eggers to realize that things have to change. Having to raise Toph makes Eggers take stock of some of his old habits.

Despite working temporary jobs to make ends meet, Eggers has to be available to take Toph to school and pick him up afterward. Eggers is almost constantly paranoid that something disastrous is going to happen to Toph whenever his younger brother is out of his sight. Therefore, Eggers limits his social life and hangs out with Toph for fun. The two brothers seem to get along very well, making good companions for one another. They make up silly games that they repeat over and over. One of Eggers's favorites is to tell Toph that the baseball hat that he wears smells like urine. This starts a familiar argument. Like a typical father, Eggers worries about Toph when the boy joins a baseball team and cannot seem to hit the ball. Eggers buys him a lighter bat and practices with him. The two of them are often at a neighborhood park throwing and catching a ball or at the beach with a Frisbee.

Most of the conversations that Eggers records between himself and Toph are rather juvenile. They call each other names and make fun of one another’s bodies and clothing. But there is a more mature side of their relationship. Eggers reads to Toph before going to bed. One of the books he reads is John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a story about the victims of the atom bomb dropped on Japan. Eggers knows that this kind of writing is filled with suffering, but he wants Toph to have a well-rounded education. Eggers also reads out of an encyclopedia while they eat dinner.

Another twist on Eggers and Toph’s relationship is that at odd moments in the narrative, Eggers has Toph saying things that would be way over the head of any eight-year-old. An example of this is when Toph criticizes a passage in the memoir. At one point, Eggers has Toph telling him that parts of what he has written about them might be hard for readers to believe. At another point, Toph points out the guilt that Eggers is trying to hide under the surface of his writing. One facet of that guilt is that Eggers is exposing very intimate details about his family that his secretive parents would never approve of disclosing.

Eggers’s memoir continues with his frustrating attempts to keep the magazine Might alive. He and a group of friends want to create a magazine that knocks everything. They ridicule other magazines by using the other magazine’s format and then making fun of it. Might becomes somewhat popular, but not financially solvent; it finally collapses. Eggers then plans to move to New York with Toph. (Although it is not stated in the memoir, Eggers moves because he has accepted a job with Esquire.)

Before they leave San Francisco, Eggers goes back to Chicago, ostensibly to attend a friend’s wedding, but that is just an excuse. His main focus is to record his thoughts about his parents’ deaths. He visits the house where his family used to live in Lake Forest. The family who owns the house allows him to roam inside. Eggers finds little that reminds him of what the house looked like when he was growing up. The new owners have torn down walls, installed big windows, and applied bright new colors of paint.

Eggers then visits an old schoolmate, Sarah Mulhern. He has a dinner date with her, and they end up in bed. When he leaves, she asks him if he got what he had wanted. He puzzles over this for a short while. While in Chicago, Eggers stays with some elementary school friends, whose conversations he has trouble investing himself in. He then visits an old friend of his father’s. Eggers wants to know what his father was thinking of just before he died. But when he asks this old family friend about his father, all the old man tells him is that Eggers’s father was a good driver.

Finally, Eggers goes by the funeral home that handled his mother’s cremation. As the director is looking for some papers, he notices a box on a shelf that has Eggers's mother’s name on it. As it turns out, this box contains Eggers’s mother's ashes. This sets up one of the more powerful scenes in this memoir, as Egger first has to decide what to do with the box and then settles on taking the ashes to the lake late at night and scattering them. What goes through Eggers’s mind while he is doing this is the closest he comes to fully opening up his heart. It almost pushes him over the edge, emotionally. He thinks about dying. He wonders if his mother is watching him and is proud of him. It seems at this point he has an epiphany—the one that he states at the beginning of his book, which reads, “First of all: I am tired. I am true of heart! And also: You are tired. You are true of heart!” He throws his mother’s ashes in the water and imagines fish eating the grains, and then imagines himself in the water and the water inside something else bigger. He seems to see that everything is one. In his closing statement at the end of the memoir, Eggers writes, “There is nowhere I stop and you begin.”


The majority of this memoir takes place in and around San Francisco. However, it begins in 1991 in Lake Forest, a well-to-do suburb up the northern shore of Lake Michigan from Chicago. This is where the author lived for most of his childhood. This is also where his parents died. It is not until the author returns to Chicago, toward the end of the memoir, that readers get a feel for the windy city. In the beginning, much of the action takes place either inside the author’s home or inside hospitals. But when Eggers returns to Chicago, long after the deaths of his parents, he explores his old neighborhood and walks along the shoreline of Lake Michigan. It is on a beach of Lake Michigan that Eggers releases the ashes of his mother’s cremated remains. This is one of the most poignant scenes of the memoir, one in which Eggers reveals the inner turmoil that he tries to hide throughout the rest of his memoir.

Eggers moves to the San Francisco area to join his sister, Beth, after his parents have died and the siblings have sold their family home and almost everything inside it. Beth is attending law school in Berkeley, on the outskirts of San Francisco. Eggers and his younger brother Toph find a rental house there. As Eggers drives to and from Toph’s school each weekday and to and from work, he offers a view of the Northern California city. He comments about the traffic, of course. But he also describes the different areas, each with its distinct characteristics. He talks about Haight-Ashbury, for example, the classic center of the hippie movement in the 1960s, which has become, in Eggers’s time, a hangout for rich kids who loiter on the sidewalks doing drugs. He also mentions the Mission District, with its wanting-to-be-cool inhabitants who have made a fashion out of buying secondhand clothes. Eggers also spends a lot of time with Toph on the various beaches around San Francisco, where they make a sport of throwing a Frisbee.

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